Commission sounds alarm over EU nitrates law

Legal action underway against 13 of 15 member states over "abysmal" implementation

The European Commission has sounded a powerful alarm over the state of implementation by EU member states of a 1991 European Union law on nitrate pollution. In a report on experience with the directive published yesterday, the Commission described the level of compliance as "abysmal" and the present situation as "extremely grave".

Adding political clout to the message, EU environment commissioner Ritt Bjerregaard said it was "totally unacceptable" that most member states had failed to implement the directive six years after its adoption. "Nitrate pollution continues to be a grave problem," for which intensive agriculture "carries a heavy responsibility," she continued. The report "strongly supports the Commission's demand for radical action in all member states".

The directive was designed to protect waters from nitrate pollution from agricultural sources, through measures including designation of "nitrate vulnerable zones" and action plans to protect them. High levels of nitrates are a potential health risk in drinking water, and can cause eutrophication and toxic algal blooms in coastal waters.

Despite the directive, the Commission says, intensive agriculture encouraged by the Common Agricultural Policy "has had...a detrimental effect on the environment". According to the report, groundwater nitrate concentrations exceed the guide level of 25 milligrams per litre (mg/l) over 87% of EU agricultural land. Many sources of drinking water continue to exceed the EU public health limit of 50mg/l.

Meanwhile, four years after member states should have transposed the nitrates directive into national law, only Denmark, France, Luxembourg and Spain have done so correctly. Five others - Belgium, Greece, Italy, Netherlands and Portugal - have failed to transpose the directive at all, whilst many other countries are judged to have transposed it incorrectly.

Only Austria, Denmark, Germany, Luxembourg and Sweden have established action programmes on nitrate pollution, the report goes on, and "none of [these are] in compliance with the directive".

In response, the Commission says, legal actions are underway against 13 of the EU's 15 member countries for failure to transpose the directive into national law or to comply with its requirements. In a statement, Ms Bjerregaard said the Commission would "use all means available to get member states to implement and enforce this vital piece of environmental legislation".

Follow Up:
European Commission, tel: +32 2 295 1111.

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